In June, NI Opera embarked on a thrilling journey through the region with its production of our new children’s opera, ‘The Chronic Identity Crisis of Pamplemousse’. Over the course of three weeks, an ensemble of eight young singers, seven instrumentalists and a creative team comprising some of most exciting young opera practitioners of the island rehearsed and performed a brand new children’s opera exploring themes of confidence and self-acceptance by Belfast composer Greg Caffrey.
We toured the full production to seven venues in Northern Ireland; from Belfast to Fermanagh, from Armagh to Newry, and from Omagh to Derry/Londonderry! As well as performing at local theatres and arts centres, we also brought Pamplemousse to the Ardnashee special school, for the enjoyment of children with learning difficulties. On our journey, we invited more than 1000 children to share the experience of a live opera. Before each performance, school children took part in free music and drama workshops that prepared them for the show and engaged with themes such as empowerment and self-acceptance.
Ahead of the tour, teachers had access to free school resource packs which included information about the opera, instrumentation, games, an interview with the composer, costume drawings and a song from the show. Every child and teacher/parent/carer had the opportunity to fill out an age-appropriate feedback form after each performance. The data will be used to inform further large-scale outreach projects in the company’s future.
Northern Ireland-born baritone Bruno Caproni has enjoyed an international singing career spanning several decades, and is equally passionate about performing as he is about sharing his knowledge and love of opera with the future generation of singers. In 2018, Caproni and renowned pianist Julian Evans inaugurated the summer school Canto al Serchio in Italy’s sun-kissed Tuscany region. Among the exclusive group of young singers invited to this year’s week-long programme will be the winner of the 2018 NI Opera Festival of Voice vocal competition, Margaret Bridge. Now in its ninth year, the Glenarm Festival of Voice will return this August. NI Opera’s Judith Wiemers spoke to Bruno about the Canto al Serchio, opera fandom, and ice cream.
JW: Bruno, it is a great honour for Northern Ireland Opera and our annual Festival of Voice to have your generous support, and we are grateful that you will once again invite this year’s competition winners to the Canto al Serchio. Our NI Opera Voice of 2018 and winner of the Deborah Voigt Opera Prize, mezzo-soprano Margaret Bridge, and fellow NI Opera Studio member Rebecca Murphy will be travelling to Tuscany in only a few days. What does the week hold in store for them? BC: During the summer school the singers will immerse themselves in the Italian culture – both musically and more generally. Simply being in the country where opera was first performed will be an exciting experience, especially here in the region around Lucca – Puccini’s birthplace. Soaking up the atmosphere of the city and the landscape around it, as well as developing an understanding for the historical significance of this place will be valuable additions to the other elements of the summer school. JW: Traveling to Italy for cultural education does of course have a very long tradition. The young Mozart was taken on trips around Italy, not only to promote his prodigious talents, but also to give him access to the best music tuition in Europe. On his journeys, he must have also picked up a fair bit of the language. BC: Our singers will hopefully do the same. We will offer them Italian lessons that are designed for a singer’s specific needs. They will learn some conversational Italian they probably wouldn’t pick up in an ordinary language lesson. JW: Which phrases would be useful to know if I was a singer trying my luck in Italy? BC: You may need questions such as “Where is my dressing room?”, “When is the rehearsal?”, or even something as mundane as “This collar is too tight”. JW: You were born into an entrepreneurial family that ran a successful ice cream parlour in Bangor, but you do of course have an Italian background. When you eventually moved to Italy, did the environment – complete with the language, landscape, maybe even food – change the way you connected with Italian operatic repertoire? BC: It did, funny enough! Being in Italy gave me a deep emotional understanding of the roots of this music, and how it connects to the Italian soul. JW: Let’s talk about the main element of the summer school: the singing. BC: We will spend a lot of time working intensely on operatic repertoire with the singers, building up to a concert at the end of the week. The concert will give our singers the opportunity not only to work towards something throughout the week, but also to practice performing for an invited live audience. In addition to working on their own repertoire, the singers will be taking part in short lectures on opera appreciation. JW: To what extent does learning about the history and performance traditions of opera add to a young singer’s own practice? BC: I regard it as immensely important, and it is my impression that young singers often don’t see the wider picture or have limited knowledge about the great performers of the past. Before I was on the path to a professional career, I was first and foremost an opera lover, and I do believe that knowledge of the opera tradition and its recordings is something that can contribute greatly to a singer’s personal development. JW: Engaging with the great voices of the past and present might also give the participants ideas about their own style? BC: Absolutely, and we will work a lot on interpretation. Ideally, when in an audition, singers will feel comfortable enough with their technique that they can enjoy singing and interpreting the music. Mentoring is an essential part of the summer school. We will give the singers some practical guidance on audition technique, so that they can focus fully on their singing when in front of an audition panel. JW: You have had a long and impressive international career. I am sure you have some wisdom to impart about all aspects of the performing profession, not least managing life and work as a freelance singer. BC: I am very happy to be quizzed about my career, and the challenges that came with it. One learns by their mistakes, of course! Sharing my experience and giving professional advice is very important to me. There are some great tips that I was given by very prominent singers when I was young – some of these have stuck with me for my entire career. I have always been very grateful for receiving advise and I would hope to pass some of it on to the next generation. JW: Have you been keeping an eye on the young singers emerging from the island of Ireland in recent years? BC: Absolutely, and I am quite impressed with the wealth of talent on the island. I still have a strong connection with Northern Ireland, and it is good to see that Northern Ireland Opera continues to thrive, following on from a great tradition of opera performance in the region which even persisted throughout the Troubles. When I left the island to study in Manchester in the 1980s, I was one of the very few who went abroad to pursue a career as a professional singer. A lot has changed since, and it is very uplifting! JW: May I ask a perhaps slightly controversial question to finish off? Who has the better ice cream; the Caproni family parlour or your local Italian vendor? BC: I can say without bad conscience that we have one of the best ice cream parlours here in Barga. It beats Bangor hands down!
JW: I am sure our Festival of Voice winner can’t wait to try it! Thank you for the interview.
Congratulations to our five finalists for the Northern Ireland Opera Voice of 2019 competition at this year’s Glenarm Festival of Voice: Conor Breen (tenor) from County Armagh; Ava Dodd (soprano) from Dublin; Susie Gibbons (soprano) from Dublin; Brian McAlea (baritone) from Belfast; and Dominica Williams (mezzo-soprano) from Dublin.
During the festival, these five singers will have the opportunity to work with vocal coaches in the build-up to the Competition Finale at 7 p.m. on Sunday 1st September, where they will sing arias, duets and songs in front of a panel of opera experts and the audience, hosted by our Patron, Sean Rafferty. The winners of the Northern Ireland Opera Voice of 2019 award and the audience prize (voted for by those attending) will be announced at the end of the evening.
The Glenarm Festival of Voice takes place annually in this beautiful north coast village in partnership with BBC Radio 3. Six events take place over three days, including three separate Invitation Recitals with Radio 3, this year featuring Ema Nikolovska, Siobhan Stagg and Samuel Hasselhorn. The NI Opera Studio will perform Jacques Offenbach’s Tulipatan and the Glens of Antrim Singing Explorers, a children’s choir, will perform a concert after a week’s singing summer school.
This year for the first time, there will be an afternoon dining event in the Glenarm Castle Tea Room, ‘Flavours of the Festival’, immediately before the Competition Finale on Sunday 1st September where you can hear our five finalists perform.
Across the three days of the festival, our five finalists will also be rehearsing in three of Glenarm’s churches: these are open to all, so do feel free to come in and listen!
We are delighted to announce that the members of the NI Opera Studio for 2019/2020 will be:
Ana-Maria Acunune (soprano) from County Dublin David Corr (baritone) from County Dublin Zoe Jackson (soprano) from County Antrim, David Lee (counter-tenor) from County Antrim
Beginning the programme in October, the 2019/2020 cohort will appear in several Studio touring productions and recitals, take part in masterclasses and receive vocal coaching from high-profile opera professionals. They will benefit from language and movement coaching and participate in the company’s varied outreach activities. Studio members also have the chance to perform in the company’s main-stage productions and will receive professional career guidance throughout the programme.
Rebecca Murphy, a current member of the NI Opera Studio describes her experience of being part of the programme over the last year:
“The NI Opera Studio allowed me to establish myself in my home country, to make new and important contacts, and has enhanced me as a performer. This year, I had the opportunity to explore several unconventional roles as well as being involved in productions which involved straight acting. These experiences certainly enabled me to become a more ‘rounded’ performer, adding to the list of more conventional roles I had studied at Music College. In addition, I have had the opportunity to attend coaching sessions with Walter Sutcliffe, Kathryn Harries, and participate in a masterclass with Stefan Vinke, all of which gave me new and exciting angles with which to approach my singing. The NI Opera Studio has helped me to bridge the gap between graduating from Music College and entering the singing profession, providing me with the stage time I needed to feel confident about forthcoming auditions.”
May McFettridge is delighted to announce that, after many, many offers from opera companies all over the world, she will make her operatic debut appearance for Northern Ireland Opera at the Grand Opera House, Belfast.
Following 30 years of performing pantomime, May’s operatic debut is as the role of Frosch the Jailer in Die Fledermaus. Her similarities to Frosch are quite remarkable. Frosch, like May, would be fond of the bottle and usually ends up involved in mishaps and mayhem sprinkled with confusion and bewilderment. The result is pandemonium. Born, dragged up and still living in Belfast, May McFettridge is the greatest and most recognised character act in Northern Ireland and is loved by her public and peers alike.
Artistic Director Walter Sutcliffe commented, “The Bat, in German Die Fledermaus, is the world’s best and most popular operetta. If you love pure luxurious feel good music there is little more uplifting and indulgent than its incredible array of Viennese waltzes that sparkle even more than the champagne its characters are powered by. And, there’s so much more. It’s a brilliant comedy of male paranoia, bringing out the absurdity of man’s egomania and obsessions with sexual potency, conquests and status. In a masterclass of irony, it simultaneously seduces and ridicules us. It may be 145 years old, but its relevance today is probably even clearer than when it was written. Or perhaps it just shows us how little has changed. And if you can’t laugh at yourself then what can you laugh at?”
“Discovering new operatic talent is one of the great privileges of my role with Northern Ireland Opera. And, I think that in bringing May McFettridge to perform opera in the Opera House, Belfast will get a debut as noteworthy as Pavarotti’s here back in 1963. May already has a fantastic 30-year following for her work and we are proud that she has chosen us as the launch-pad for what we are certain will be a remarkable step into the opera world!”
May will be joined by Northern Irish baritone Ben McAteer (Eisenstein), who trained at the National Opera Studio in London and on the Guildhall School of Music & Drama opera course. He is a former winner of Les Azuriales Opera prize, the Guildhall School’s English song prize, NI Opera’s inaugural Festival of Voice. In 2018 he sang Marullo in Rigoletto for the company.
County Down soprano Maria McGrann (Adele) is a graduate of Queen’s University Belfast and the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dublin. Her most recent operatic engagements include the roles of Countess Ceprano Rigoletto (NIO), Madame Herz Der Schauspieldirektor (INO), Cunegonde Candide (Opera in the Open), Musetta La Boheme, Zerlina Don Giovanni and Sandman & Dewfairy Hänsel and Gretel (OITO).
Dresden-born Stephan Loges, who will perform the role of Falke, has given recitals throughout the world, including regular appearances at Wigmore Hall, London as well as Carnegie Hall, New York, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Vienna Konzerthaus, Klavierfestival Ruhr, La Monnaie Brussels, Schleswig-Holstein Festival, Santiago de Compostela, BBC Radio 3 and the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.